Brain Food: The Connection Between Nutrition and Mental Health

On the topic of wellness, we often think about eating healthy foods, being active, and getting enough rest. But being well encompasses more than just our physical bodies. Mental health is trending in the primary healthcare setting, and for good reason. It has been estimated that 1 in 5 adults experiences mental illness in a given year.(1)  Each year, 18% of the U.S. population suffers from an anxiety disorder, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).(2)  Meanwhile, 16 million adults (6.7% of the population) experienced a major depressive episode in the past year.(3)

But how does food affect mood?

The studies have it: Our food and mood are connected in many ways. On a molecular level, even our neurotransmitters (the “feel good” chemicals in the brain) are affected by the food we eat. Glucose, the building-block of carbohydrate-rich foods like potatoes and grains, is responsible for the production of serotonin in the brain.(5) Serotonin is a well-studied neurotransmitter responsible for balancing mood and anxiety. To keep a steady blood glucose level, it is best to eat whole-grain carbohydrates, like whole wheat bread and pasta, brown rice, and oatmeal.

How else does nutrition affect brain chemistry? Healthy fats have been shown to have significant mental health benefits. In particular, the consumption of polyunsaturated fat sources like flaxseed, fish, and olive oil are beneficial in the prevention and treatment of depression.(6) Other studies have suggested that dietary flavonoids—tiny nutrients in fruits and veggies known for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects—have an important role in learning and memory.(7) An overall healthy eating pattern, including high levels of fruits, veggies, nuts, legumes, and fish was protective against depression, while a high intake of fast food and processed pastries was associated with increased depression risk.(6)

It’s not only what we eat, but how we eat that affects the way we feel. Intuitive eating practices, such as being mindful at mealtimes, respecting one’s body, and listening to internal hunger signals, have been shown to positively affect symptoms of depression, anxiety, disordered eating, and poor self-esteem.(8)

Although nutrition is an important component of a healthy life, remember not to let food take up too much of your “mental real estate.” Worrying about what and when to eat is not ideal; instead, listen to your body, and a healthy relationship with eating will begin to blossom.

The role of the RDN

Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs) have a special place in the care team when it comes to mental illness. Because food and the brain are connected on both a chemical and psychological level, medical nutrition therapy is a necessary component for maintaining mental health. Apart from depression and anxiety, other mental conditions that benefit from nutrition guidance include:

  • Addiction/alcoholism

  • Disordered eating

  • Negative body image

Keep in mind—our brain and body are connected in many ways that we often don’t realize. Having a whole-body approach to health and wellness honors both our physical and psychological selves while helping us feel our best.











*Contributed to by CVwellbeing Intern Stephanie Zahares

Let’s Talk Probiotics

Good bacteria: it’s a thing!

When you think of microorganisms, “health” might not be the first thing that comes to mind. After all, we’ve been taught our whole lives that germs make us sick. And while some bacteria do promote disease and infection, others can be quite good for us. Enter: probiotics.

Probiotics are the “good bacteria”—live microorganisms that have special benefits for our bodies. You may have seen packages at the grocery store touting the probiotic content of certain foods; so, what are these products and what can they do for us?


Have you had your kombucha today? This fermented tea is served cold and lightly sweetened. It is made using a colony of beneficial yeast and bacteria. The result is cultured goodness, with a slightly fizzy, cider-like taste.

Kefir is another beverage to keep an eye on. Made similarly to kombucha, it is a fermented milk complete with live cultures. Kefir is available in different flavors and tastes like liquid yogurt.

Prefer to mix your probiotics in with some granola and berries? Plenty of yogurts today are made with active cultures.

If you prefer savory flavors, why not try some fermented veggies? Kimchi and sauerkraut are loaded with the good stuff and are an easy way to spice up sandwiches and salads. For a plant-protein powerhouse, try tempeh, which is made from fermented soybeans.

Are these drinks and foods not your cup of tea? Although we promote the “food first” approach, probiotics are also available in supplement form. If you choose a supplement, look for one with 10-20 billion live CFUs (colony-forming units), as this dose has shown most beneficial in clinical trials. Always look for live cultures. Heat and pasteurization tend to kill the bacteria, which means your body will not reap the benefits. Refrigerated probiotics have a shelf life of about three to six weeks. Selecting a probiotic with a variety of strains is also important, as different strains provide special benefits. Three well-researched and important strains to look for include: Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacterium longum and Bifidobacterium bifidum.

No matter how you decide to consume your probiotics, please keep in mind: although probiotics don’t usually have side effects, if any new food or supplement causes you gastrointestinal distress, discontinue it. Remember—listen to your body; foods affect everyone’s digestion differently!

Food for Thought

Now that you know where to find probiotics, you may wonder, what can they do for my health? The science shows that these cultures may help alleviate unpleasant symptoms of digestive disorders (namely diarrhea), enhance digestion of food and absorption of nutrients, provide oral health benefits, and perhaps even prevent viruses like the common cold by enhancing immune function.

Although most people can benefit from the use of probiotics, they can be especially important if you struggle with any of the following:

  • Antibiotic use

  • GI dysfunction or discomfort – this includes but is not limited to bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhea, and acid reflux

  • Low energy

  • Mood disorder, like depression or anxiety

  • Weak immunity

  • Skin conditions

  • Inflammation – this study suggests that probiotics can be used to treat a disturbed gut microbiome, which in turn decreases inflammation leading to depressive disorders

Choosing to consume probiotics is a healthful way to nourish your body—whether you have a history of digestive issues, are using antibiotics, or just want to promote general wellness, show your gut some love!







*Contributed to by CVwellbeing Intern Stephanie Zahares